LACONIA — A community forum on building bridges across political divides drew about 30 viewers Wednesday who listened to panelists trade thoughts on how to connect respectfully when you disagree – a pattern they say is lacking in government.
Moderated by former mayor Michael Seymour, “Listening Across the Divide: Building Bridges or Walls?” was the second in a series on civic discourse and tolerance, hosted by the Laconia Daily Sun, Sen. Harold French and Mayor Andrew Hosmer. Panelists included state Rep. Mike Bordes, County Commissioner Peter Spanos, local Democrat party leader Carlos Cardona, area resident Mo Baxley and Gretchen Gandini, a school board member from Gilford.
The discourse was at times thoughtful, nonpartisan and concilliatory, and at other times heated, heartfelt and accusatory, particularly when the topic came to State Rep. Dawn Johnson’s linking an anti-Semitic meme from a neo-Nazi website – an incident that shocked the community and led some to question her credibility as a leader. The incident remains an open wound for some residents, including Jews, who believe her apology was incomplete.
Panelists talked mostly about problems in government.
There’s “a fundamental lack of trust in one another that I’m noting as a school board member,” Gandini said. “People would come to the school board meeting and automatically assume I was on the other side. How do we build that trust? We have to trust people to come to the table with best intentions” and believe they are reasonable and capable until proven wrong.
Baxley believes lack of trust and respect is impeding progress. “We live in a pluralist society. We need to respect the other person’s right to disagree. Most of the time we can get to a place where we can agree on something. Tribalism has crept into our community and it’s a real stumbling block.”
Even “with different opinions, we’re all working for the common good,” said Bordes.
Spanos said the key is focusing on what we have in common, and using that to move forward. “Most of us have children. Some have grandchildren. We may disagree with each other, or not even like each other. But we can all agree that we want to do something good for our children.”
Cardona said it’s critical for leaders to admit mistakes in order to heal ill will and restore faith. “Mistrust doesn’t just happen. We have to practice what we’re preaching,” said Cordana, who described success in proposing a meeting with Bordes, a Republican: “Let’s stop politics and meet for coffee.’ We admitted our mistakes, and learned how to walk forward together and work for what’s best for the city.”
French said divisions between the Republican and Democrat parties have been overblown, which increases the sense of a nation that is polarized. “We have the basic philosophies of the two parties. The division comes from the media, internet and television,” French said. “We’re constantly bombarded with talking heads saying we’re more divided than we are. At work I don’t see it. At the State House I don’t see it. I read about it. I hear about it. I don’t feel it.”
French said he recently introduced two bills that called for greater transparency for police. “Black Lives Matter was in support. Libertarians were in support. The ACLU and even police officers came in support. There was some opposition, but it’s all philosophy. I don’t see the division people say we have.”
When an organization, or political party, “requires you to check every box to be a good member, that limits people to be creative in their thinking,” said Hosmer, who said such litmus tests stifle a person's latitude to be guided by their conscience to make critical decisions on public policy, and contributes to tribalism.
“Is health care a right, or a privilege that comes with getting a job?” said Hosmer. “If we can’t listen to each other, we can’t bridge the divide.”
“As a decidedly independent voter, I think I have a foot in each party,” Gandini said. “I see a role for some government, and for community control. We all think we’re farther apart than we are because of what we read online, what we cut and paste, and share.”
Baxley bemoaned the media’s hand in stoking greater division. “It think people make money by us being divided,” she said. “If we have real relationships where we can reach each other across the aisle, maybe we’d believe each other. We need to make these relationships ahead of time. We need to talk to each other and trust each other’s experiences.”
The talk turned to the effect of Johnson’s link.
“We’ve learned that actions have consequences,” said Bordes. “Before we post stuff and say stuff, we have to review and think whether it could damage” someone else. “We have to be cognizant before we speak or post.”
“We need to offer people the same respect, whether we’re holding someone accountable or celebrating something,” Cardona said. “What I want to make clear is ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t cut it for me as a minority.” We often are “numb to how we treat minorities in our community. I know Republicans who are Jewish and Blacks and Hispanics that are shocked that this could happen.”
Bordes said someone texted him a message, calling the people of New Hampshire “rednecks.”
“That is nothing in comparison to calling someone the N-word. As a minority that gets beat up all the time, you get angry and frustrated,” Cardona said. “That’s how Black people, Asians and Hispanics feel in our state. Stereotyping is a reflection of how you treat others. The fact that people on this call stay silent is appalling.”
Heated reaction against Johnson continues in letters to the editor and on social media. “I question how much beating you’re going to give an individual for something that they apologized for,” said French. “Is that bullying of one side against the other? I see this as bullying of Dawn Johnson.”
French said he is personally offended by the redneck label. “I’m seven generations in New Hampshire. I started milking cows. After that, I was roofing. I’ve been working every day of my life since I was 14. To call me a redneck, I do take offense at that. “
“This is about Dawn Johnson,” said Baxley. “I’ve known Jews who have escaped Nazism. If you feel compelled to share Nazi propaganda and push it out to your constituents, you need to do some soul searching. The U.S. Constitution and Nazism are opposed. You can’t be for both. What are you doing on that web page? Do you agree with these people?”
“There’s a big difference between anything I’m posting and what’s being done in this community,” said Cardona. “Dawn Johnson is not being bullied, she’s being held accountable. What she’s done people are being killed for.”
Seymour redirected the conversation to events at the Capitol.
Spanos said he believes there was a media effort to suppress awareness of violence this summer in Seattle, Portland and Minneapolis, “when great American cities were being looted and burned. That it happened in Washington, D.C. should surprise no one. I felt almost anesthetized because of what I saw” occur in major cities this summer. “It’s important to condemn violent actions and behavior when we see it, regardless of political persuasion.”
“I was deeply saddened because of the reverence I hold my country in,” said Hosmer. “They are not perfect, but our democracy and government are the best in the world. What that group did was take misinformation and bad data to justify sedition.”
“I personally condemned actions of Black Lives Matter, Antifa and what happened in Washington, D.C.,” Bordes said. “We need to stop segregating Americans by race, creed or religion. It’s doing more harm than good.”
“I would condemn violence on both sides,” said Gandini. She cited a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in Gilford this summer. “At root was a young girl who was treated as less than…in Gilford Village, where I grew up. It’s very different than what happened at the Capitol.”
“We have to accept the fact that there’s history in this nation that hasn’t gone away,” Baxley said. “The pains of racism get passed from generation to generation. It’s our responsibility as Caucasians to go to them and listen. When a Black man says he can’t catch a cab in New York City, I believe him.”
Daily Sun publisher Adam Hirshan said social media platforms and even video conferencing are less humanizing and optimal than meeting in person to discuss uncomfortable topics, which he hopes can happen soon.
“There’s a wide chasm” between polarized viewpoints, said Seymour, but in this forum, “you share your point of view and know you’ve been heard and listened to. Without these conversations, nothing can be resolved.”
“It’s a threat to American democracy if our leaders, once elected, still want to act in support of their base and won’t sit down with the other side to solve a problem,” said Hirshan. “It’s a threat to democracy if we can’t compromise.”
The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com